Tenderhearted Living

Scripture can be found here...

I don’t know where this story originated. I don't know whether it was something captured in a video, or originally part of an article, or a post on social media such. All I know is, once I heard it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

You may have seen it, or heard it. It is a story about a couple, and they are fighting—they are angry, they are yelling. And, in the same room with them, there is a small child, a toddler. And, at some point, the toddler picks up the TV remote, and aims it at their parents, and tries to turn it off.

It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. The undeniable message of that small child is that they are distressed, that the fighting they are witnessing is upsetting, or frightening, or even unendurable. And it’s not just toddlers who are affected this way. Angry words pierce us. Harsh language hurts. It tears at the fabric of a relationship. It can tear it apart. We know from the story how that child was reacting—trying to put a stop to the fighting.

What about the parents, the couple? What happened to them? What’s their story? How did they get so angry? Was it a one-off, just a fluke in an otherwise peaceful, joyful union? Or was fighting a way of life, a constant in the complex dynamics that of their life together?

I have a divorce under my belt, so I certainly don’t consider myself an expert in happy marriages. Though, at this point in my life, I do consider myself a modestly successful learner. Every so often I have the privilege of being asked to preside at a wedding. And we usually spend at least six months preparing. By which I mean, preparing for the marriage. And one conversation we always, always, have, is a conversation about fighting.

Tell me memories of your parents fighting, I ask. And, in most cases, couples can do that, though occasionally I work with one whose parents’ disagreements were never noticeable enough to call a “fight.” What did that look like, I ask, when your parents disagreed? I’m wondering if there was yelling. I’m wondering whether, in the heat of the argument, one parent tended to retreat behind a locked bedroom door, or to go out for “a walk.” I’m wondering whether things were thrown. I’m wondering whether one partner ever laid a hand on the other in anger. Of course, I’m asking all these questions because children learn what they live. We know that. And we tend to either adopt our parents’ fighting style, or react against it.

It can be a deeply scarring thing to grow up with parents fighting regularly or even constantly. One psychologist at Notre Dame says, “Children are like emotional Geiger counters. Kids pay close attention to their parents’ emotions for information about how safe they are in the family. When parents are destructive, the collateral damage to kids can last a lifetime.”[i]  Someone once said to me, “I don’t like antiques. I saw too many of them flying by my head while I was growing up.” I laughed, and then I stopped, because, like the toddler with the remote, it would be funny, if only it weren’t so tragic.

I’m convinced—deep in my soul—that God created us for connection. For union. And scripture strongly suggests that all happy and peaceful relationships have similar foundations, whether they take the form of friendships, membership in faith communities, co-workers, family ties, or, yes, intimate partnerships. In all these ways of being connected to one another, we are invited into a way of life I would call, “tenderhearted living.”

This is our second dip into the letter to the Ephesians, and, of course, this is by definition addressed to a faith community, that pilgrim church in Ephesus. And, as I mentioned last time, neither Paul nor his theological offspring ever wrote to a church that was doing just fine. Our passage makes us wonder whether the Grecian urns were flying during congregational meetings.

The passage begins with admonitions about what NOT to do:  Don’t lie. Don’t let anger draw you into sin. Don’t steal. Don’t let evil come out of your mouths. Don’t dwell in bitterness, or anger, or slander, or malice.

But, the “don’ts” all have encouragements tucked into them, did you notice? Let’s not lie, but speak the truth to our neighbors, because we are all members of one another. There it is. Connection. Union.

Be angry, but do not sin. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger. I have to confess: there was a time when I thought that was a modern aphorism, maybe something out of Poor Richard’s Almanack. (Here's what Richard has to say about anger, by the way: “Anger is never without a reason but seldom with a good one.”) But there is more wisdom in “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger” than a hundred sessions with a marriage therapist—or with a conflict mediation expert.

Notice, the author of “Ephesians” is not saying, “Don’t be angry.” Anger is a response, but often one with roots in other emotions. Anger is most often a product of fear. Go ahead and think about the things that make you angry. I am willing to bet you one very fine home-baked product that every one of them is actually rooted in fear. Now, it may take you a while to understand exactly what that fear is. But. Somewhere beneath anger—even what the Bible calls “righteous anger,” like the anger of Jesus throwing over tables in the Temple—there is always fear, either for ourselves or for someone else.

The author is not telling us “Don’t be angry.” But that doesn’t mean we should let ourselves marinate in it… which can feel so, so, good, especially when we are convinced we are right, on the side of the angels. Be angry, we read here, but don’t sin, don’t make room in your heart for evil to come in and put on the coffee and put his feet up.

Instead, inquire about your anger. Wonder about it. “I wonder where that came from?” we can ask ourselves. “I wonder what that brings up in me? I wonder what that reminded me of? I wonder what I’m afraid of, of who I’m afraid for?” Questions like this can offer us alternatives to our anger… can help us find our way onto a path that includes peace, and hope, and a plan, and, even, a good night’s sleep.

“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander,” the passage continues, “together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” Sometimes, to become tenderhearted, we have to “put away” behaviors that actually harden our hearts. This brings me back to the work I’ve been privileged to do with couples.

At some point in pre-marriage preparations, I always bring up an article by Dr. John Gottman, a marriage therapist who is kind of famous for something he calls “The Love Lab.” This is an apartment “equipped with computers, video cameras, physiological sensors, and an array of fascinating scientific gadgets,” where couples can stay for a weekend to have their interactions monitored by Dr. Gottman and his associates. By the end of the weekend, Gottman (who has 40 years of research under his belt) has found that he can predict whether the relationship will survive with 96% accuracy.

How does he do it? One way is by the presence (or absence) of “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse of Relationships.” For Christians, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are characters found in the book of Revelation, who bring warnings of the catastrophes of conquest, war, hunger, and death. For Dr. Gottman, the Four Horsemen are communication styles that, similarly to the biblical ones, predict catastrophe, but, this time, for the relationship. The four horsemen are: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. And they are just as deadly to friends, colleagues, siblings, and others, as they are to couples. I’ll take them one at a time.

Criticism is an attack. It makes judgments about character.  It often begins with words like “You always…” and “Why can’t you ever…” Criticism shuts down conversation, because the person has been told they are bad. On the other hand, complaint—a statement that expresses our own feelings about how we are being affected by the other person—opens up conversation. When both partners in a conflict are willing to prioritize the health of the connection, they can learn to express themselves in ways that don’t begin harshly and get worse from there.

Contempt takes criticism and multiplies it by ten. Where criticism attacks character, contempt adds the bitter ingredient of moral superiority. Contempt is born of resentments that simmer over long periods of time—and you know what they say about resentment. It’s like drinking rat poison and expecting the rat to die. Contempt, by itself, is the single greatest predictor of divorce in couples. It is so pernicious, there’s even research suggesting that, when it’s present, couples are more likely to suffer from infectious illnesses—more colds, more flu, etc. And it’s no healthier in a workplace or in a congregation than it is in a marriage. It destroys people.

Defensiveness. When I first learned about the Four Horsemen, I realized that there was one I kept forgetting. It was defensiveness. Guess why I kept forgetting it? You got it. It’s because it’s the one I am most prone to. Defensiveness is usually a response to criticism. On the one hand, it seems reasonable, especially if the criticism is mean-spirited. On the other hand, it sends a very loud and clear message that we are not listening to the person who is telling us something is wrong, and they are feeling hurt. A non-defensive response can include an acceptance of responsibility or a question to lead to a deeper discussion. A defensive response propels us away from one another. An open-hearted attempt to really listen brings us together.

Stonewalling is usually a response to contempt, and no wonder! When we are on the receiving end of that we of course want to turn away, shut down, and block off the part of ourselves that is already wounded. We act busy. We stop responding. It’s very hard to stop stonewalling, because it starts as an understandable protective measure because we actually feel like we have been flooded with negative emotions. The best thing we can do? Take a break. Take time to calm ourselves, or cool off… take that walk. Then we return, hopefully, not to a fight, but to a conversation, one in which both parties can express themselves with respect, with the ultimate goal of connection.[ii]

God created us for connection. God created us to find relationship—whether with friends, siblings, members of our faith communities, co-workers, or even partners. And to do that, each of us must commit to the habits of the tenderhearted… Speaking the truth in love. Listening carefully and responding without malice. Owning the ways in which we may have caused hurt. Maintaining our bond with one another intentionally… not letting it fall away or be torn away by the anger that is, one way or another, based in fear.

God created us for mutual care and tending in our relationships. The “thoughts to ponder” in today’s bulletin are from a social media post by Anne Lamott. In that same post, she tells the story of her friend Caroline. She writes,

“Caroline stopped drinking 30 years ago, at the age of 40, with zero interest or belief in any kind of higher power to whom she might be able to turn when cravings overcame her. But after a year of white-knuckle sobriety, contemptuous of a higher power, hanging on through will power, she one day heard and then found a frog in her shower.

“She lifted it and gently carried it in her cupped hands through the house. She could feel and, of course, imagine its terror. She took it out to the garden, where there was a moist patch of earth over near the blackberries, and set it down. It sat stock still for a bit, and then hopped away into the bushes.

“She said, ‘My name is Caroline. I’m that frog.’

“I am, too, and I am also a big helper. When I have felt most isolated and lost, I have always ended up being carried back to the garden in people’s good hands, to where I need to be, afraid and not breathing for much of the way. And I have helped carry scared people, the best I could. You have, too. Isn’t that what grace is, when some force of kindness, against all odds, with unknown hands, brings us from fear and hard tiles to a moist patch of earth, and sets us down?”

“Be kind to one another,” says the wisdom of the letter to the Ephesians, “tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” I know the idea of being tenderhearted is a hard sell in what feels like an angry season in our country and our world. But as the recipients of grace… as people who know ourselves to be loved unconditionally and ferociously by God, we are called to love one another in that very same way. To be kind to one another. To be patient with one another. To be big helpers to one another when one of us feels small and scared. To do all this because we live in the memory of being carried by God’s good hands, back to the garden where we can start breathing again.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


[i] E. Mark Cummings, Ph. D., as quoted in “What Happens to Children When Parents Fight,” Developmental Science Blog, Diane Divecha, Ph. D, April 30, 2014. http://www.developmentalscience.com/blog/2014/04/30/what-happens-to-children-when-parents-fight.

[ii] Ellie Lisitsa, “The Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling,” The Gottman Relationship Blog, The Gottman Institute, April 23, 2013, https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/.